Propensity to violate others – taking checks and balances seriously

April 28, 2015

Polls have found that more than 3 American men in 10 would rape or coerce a woman into sexual intercourse if they could get away with it.[i] Those findings have mostly been discussed only in conjunction with the issue of rape. But I think it has a broader meaning. I think it means that there is a proportion of people who will take advantage of defenseless others for their own benefit when they think that they can.

That creates problems in lots of areas. Like soldiers of countries that we think are less civilized then we, some proportion of American soldiers have resorted to forms of torture like waterboarding. Some go berserk, others are mean, but the misbehavior is predictable, if not who will do what. And like police of countries that we think are less civilized then we, some proportion of American police have also victimized demonstrators, people down on their luck, the homeless and racial minorities. That’s certainly not democratic policing. And it’s made worse by codes of silence in some police departments that are almost as sinister and sometimes worse than the codes among thieves.

I don’t think that most police are bad guys. But when we set things up so that people can get away with bad stuff, it is predictable that a significant proportion will. When we hand people guns and then make excuses for whatever they do because it’s a stressful job, we should expect that a significant proportion of them will do very bad things with the freedom we give them. A system of impunity encourages bad behavior. So one question is how we can set up our police forces so that policemen have the right incentives, incentives appropriate to a free and democratic country? Transparency and accountability matter.

The same is true of business, both international and local. When we take all the tools out of the hands of consumers and courts, we should expect a significant proportion of businesses to misbehave and take people for a ride, often for very dangerous rides. And in business the market mechanism can sometimes make things worse because it punishes those businesses which can’t bring their costs as low and their profits as high even when the mechanism is to take advantage of people, take their money, injure, and leave their lives in shambles. Responsible businesses need responsible regulation to keep the competition in line.

The same of course is true in politics. That’s why we value free speech so highly. But as my colleague, Timothy Lytton pointed out in a book called Kosher,[ii] a study of private marketplaces that do and don’t work, accountability depends on a sufficient number of people with intense interest in the subject, people the rest of us trust to check on what is happening, and a way to get the information out. It’s not automatic – there’s too much to know, too much work to find out.

So transparency is only the beginning. We have to have a culture in which we expect to hold people and organizations to account – without fear or favor for any of the groups and institutions that can hurt us. But in law, the Roberts Court seems to be developing the opposite – a legal culture of defenses and protections buried in contracts and doctrine. And in popular culture, stereotypes, ideology and polarization now substitute for facts. Heaven help us.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 28, 2015.

[i] See Sarah R. Edwards,  Kathryn A. Bradshaw, and Verlin B. Hinsz, Denying Rape but Endorsing Forceful Intercourse: Exploring Differences Among Responders, 1 VIOLENCE AND GENDER 188, 190 (2014) available at Though the survey size was small and localized, similar results have been reported before. See Only Psychos Think Rape is OK…Right? in Web Info on Sexual Assault and Abuse (University of Illinois at Chicago, Office of Women’s Affairs, Campus Advocacy Network), collecting some of the studies.

[ii] Timothy D. Lytton, Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food (Harvard Univ. Press 2013).

Reactions to Obama and African-Americans

October 21, 2014

Several people recently hopped the White House fence and were caught with weapons. Many treat Obama as if he can’t do anything right. Some insist they want him to lead while making it impossible to do that. From the beginning of Obama’s presidency, Republicans in Congress focused on bringing Obama down by blocking everything he did regardless of the merits. That’s unique in our recent history. He’s even been criticized for taking a vacation – though Obama has spent far less time on vacation than his predecessors – plural – and was obviously doing the job of governing even while taking some time with his family. What’s going on?

Minorities have long understood that to get any credit they have to be much better than anyone else – if in fact their success isn’t used against them. Read the rest of this entry »

Forcing us to Live in an Immoral World

September 2, 2014

We are increasingly being forced to live in an immoral world. The radical wrong has hijacked the very idea of morality so that it no longer has anything to do with helping our neighbor. We’re not supposed to lift a collective finger for our fallen fellow citizens. Nothing for the unemployed, nothing for people who have been defrauded out of their homes, nothing for unions, and no taxes from those who benefit most from America’s wealth – and who are coincidentally disinvesting in America. Read the rest of this entry »

Passover – The Indivisibility of Freedom

April 15, 2014

This is Passover, a holiday that comes straight out of the Bible, the Almighty commanding us to tell the story of the Exodus to each new generation as well as reminding ourselves. The Exodus, of course, is a story of freedom from slavery. The Biblical story is about the Hebrew exodus from slavery in Egypt. But we are very explicit about relating that story to the freedom of others. Read the rest of this entry »

Environmental Degradation as Murder

February 18, 2014

I don’t think of myself as a motivational speaker. I try to explain, and hope my commentaries provide helpful explanations. But this time, I want to challenge and motivate everyone to take strong action on the environmental catastrophe facing us.

We know burning gas, oil, coal and wood release carbon and help produce global warming. Some of that carbon acidifies the oceans when it’s absorbed. Air and water contamination destroy our food supplies, by destroying habitat and causing draught, among other ways. That destroys us. Global warming and ocean acidification threaten the oxygen we breathe. They threaten to sicken us with new diseases. The science is now well known.

Law generally defines murder as an intentional killing. And we infer that people intend the natural and probable consequences of their actions. And we know. Aren’t those of us who stand by guilty of mass murder-suicide, intending the natural and probable consequence of our use of carbon fuels, the death of many, perhaps billions, of human beings. Isn’t it reckless indifference to human life to fire global warming into this crowded planet. Read the rest of this entry »

Casinos and the Board of Elections

November 5, 2013

When this is aired, I will be in Washington, D. C., where my students and I went to the U.S. Supreme Court to hear cases argued that we have been studying. Since it is also election day, I had to fill out an absentee ballot. On the ballot, the casino proposition leads the group of ballot propositions. Governor Cuomo had “submitted a concurrent resolution to the State Legislature to amend article I, § 9 of the State Constitution to allow for ‘casino gambling regulated by the state.’”[1]

Having been twice approved by the legislature, the proposed amendment is being submitted to New York voters. But the State Board of Elections added the following language to the proposal for the obvious purpose of encouraging voters to support it:

“for the legislated purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated.”[2]   Read the rest of this entry »

Our Common Stake in Affirmative Action

October 15, 2013

The Court just heard argument in another affirmative action case. It is often put as if it is all about them and the rest of us are just losers as the result of any affirmative action for African-Americans. But do we have a stake in affirmative action, or whether African-Americans remain a permanent underclass? Read the rest of this entry »


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